“I’m not crazy. They control everything,” says a character in Tom McCarthy’s brilliant new film, Spotlight (now playing at AMC and Landmark theaters regionally). “They,” in this case, refers to the Boston Catholic Church, and “everything” is no hyperbole: the Church has its hand in nearly every level of authority in the city. What unfolds over the film’s 128 minutes is a mighty effort by a newspaper to loosen that control.
Modeled after another investigative journalism classic in which a newspaper helps bring to light the dark secrets of a powerful institution, Spotlight could also have been titled All the Parish’s Men.
While Spotlight and 1976’s All The President’s Men are testaments to old-fashioned, boots-on-the-ground investigative reporting, they are also about the moral institutional decay that builds up over time through coverup, corruption, and complacency. In the 1970s, it was Richard Nixon’s White House. In 2001, when Spotlight takes place, it is the Catholic Church of the city of Boston, where more than half of The Boston Globe’s readers are Catholics.
Spotlight is The Globe’s team of dedicated investigative reporters who, when we meet them, are searching for their next story. Played by Rachel McAdams, Brian D’Arcy James, Mark Ruffalo, and Michael Keaton, as the team’s senior editor, Spotlight is handed a new big story by The Globe’s new editor-in-chief, Marty Baron (played wonderfully by Liev Schreiber). Baron asks Spotlight to look further into recent sexual abuse allegations towards Boston Catholic Church clergymen. Knowing that they have a potentially explosive story on their hands, the group must discreetly investigate the claims, even as they are continually stonewalled by the church, its powerful lawyers, and the city’s court system.
All being born and bred Bostonians, several of the team’s reporters face serious conflicts of interests as they dive deeper into their investigation. Sacha Pfieffer (McAdams) regularly attends services with her devout grandmother. Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson (Keaton) hobnobs with Archdiocese power players. It is fascinating to watching the characters navigate their own emotional dilemmas while they confront the magnitude of the story they are chasing.
What the film also makes clear is how tribal both the Boston Catholic Church and the city are. As one of the few self-proclaimed “outsiders” in the movie, Stanley Tucci plays a crusading, boisterous lawyer defending a group of survivors willing to share their stories. His character, who is of Armenian descent, has lived in Boston nearly his entire life, but he says he has never felt welcomed in Boston. The city’s majority Catholic population looks at Tucci and Schrieber’s (whose character is of Jewish descent) characters with suspicious eyes, skeptical of their agendas that may clash with the tradition and loyalty that define their relationship with the church.
Much like the disquieting All the President’s Men, this film does not have a lot of fireworks. It is a nuts-and-bolts, workman-like procedural. Many of the scenes take place in cluttered offices or conference rooms, and the terrific ensemble cast is almost entirely costumed in drab, understated attire.
Yet the movie is never boring or tedious – it is gripping from start to finish. Even as the group’s journalistic task – like any extensive work of reporting – has its fits and starts, as leads and sources are found and lost, the film never loses steam.
Spotlight will leave you unsettled and outraged. But it is also one of the best moviegoing experiences you will have this year. The film is, much like the investigative journalism it shows and the spirit it embodies, an act of public service.